Archive for April, 2012

“But They Who Trust in the Lord…”

April 28, 2012

“..shall renew their strength.” Isaiah, Chapter 40, verse 31 (JPSV)

Baseball has a long history of being connected to religion. I don’t mean all the fans at home and in the stands with their palms together going “please, Lord, let him get a hit.” I’m talking about on the field. It goes back at least to Billy Sunday in the 1880s and probably longer. Today you see and hear it with frequency. So far I’ve noted no “Tebowing” but watch for the player stepping into the batter’s box who crosses himself, watch for the guy who crosses home and points a finger to the sky (sometimes in memory of a parent or sibling, but frequently in acknowledgement of his faith). How many times have you heard an interview begin with the phrase, “I’d like to thank my Lord and Savior”? I suppose that the most famous moment of religion in baseball occurred almost 50 years ago in October 1965.

Sandy Koufax pitching

In 1965, the Los Angeles Dodgers won their second National League pennant in three years. Their unquestioned star was left-handed starter Sandy Koufax. On his way to a second Cy Young Award and second place in the MVP voting, he won the pitching triple crown with 26 wins, an all-time record 382 strike outs and and ERA of 2.04. That, of course, meant that everyone knew who was going to start game one of the World Series against the American League champion Minnesota Twins.

Except that there was a problem. The sixth of October 1965 was Yom Kippur, one of the most important days in the Jewish religious tradition and Koufax was Jewish. He announced, quietly, to his team he would not pitch on such a holy day. The press got wind of the story and it took off. It made the front page of newspapers (including the local paper in the town where I lived) and created something of an uproar. First, probably 80% of baseball fans had no idea Koufax was Jewish (he’d never made a point of it) and even less knew what Yom Kippur was all about. He had not been averse to pitching Friday night or Saturday afternoon games, but this was different and a lot of people didn’t understand how. In some places he was vilified, in others praised. But he maintained his stance, refused to comment publicly on the issue and went about his business preparing to pitch game two.

Well, Don Drysdale pitched game one and was shelled. Then Koufax took the mound for game two. He gave up one earned run (and one unearned) and the bullpen collapsed leading to a 5-1 Twins victory and 2-0 Twins lead in games. They could only win one more. Claude Osteen pitched a masterful game three, Drydale came back in game four, and Koufax won both game five and seven (the latter a three hit shutout) and picked up the Series MVP award.

He pitched one more year then retired. The religious stand became a major part of his legacy to both Jews and non-Jews alike. Many saw it as a stand for principle, something ball players aren’t known for as a rule.



April 24, 2012

You ever listen to baseball fans about how the Designated Hitter is the worst thing that ever happened to baseball because it changed the game? Or how about that interleague play is awful because it changed the game? I remember all the way back to when they argued that adding a round of playoffs would change the game. You know what? Baseball has never been static. It changes all the time and the notion that the game is set in stone and that nothing should ever change flies in the face of reality. Let me give you one real simple example.

In the beginning (catchy, right?) of baseball there were small rosters. Those made it absolutely necessary for players to be adept at playing more than one position. We call those guys utility players and in 19th Century baseball they were ubiquitous (didn’t think I knew a word that big, did you?). Then they began to die out as rosters expanded and free substitution was allowed. Those kinds of players are still around and still valuable, just not as common as 120 years ago. Two of the best played against each other in the 1950s.

Gil McDougald

Gil McDougald arrived in New York with the Yankees in 1951. He stayed through 1960, retiring rather than move to the expansion Los Angeles Angels. He was one of the Yankees’ finest players and most people never noticed. He regularly played 120 to 140 games (his low was 119 in 1960 and his high was 152 in 1952), usually hit in the 280s (he hit .300 twice and as low as .250 in 1958), popped an average of 14 home runs, and had an OPS+ above 100 all but two seasons (and one of those was 98). In other words he hit well and had he been a fulltime started might have hit even better. What he did was fill the infield hole, wherever it was. Over his career he played 599 games at second (come on, Casey, give him one more game at second), 508 at third, and 284 at shortstop. In 1952 and 1953 he spent more time at third than any other player while still logging a number of games at second. In 1954 he had more games at second than “regular” second baseman Joe Coleman. By 1956 he’d moved to shortstop where he settled in for that season and the next. In 1958 he went back to second base. No matter the infield position (except first, where I’ll bet he would have done well also), McDougald could be plugged in and you were set for the season. In his last two years he floated among all three of his former positions and solidified the infield. He was never flashy, never a star, but was a solid and important member of the 1950s Yankees dynasty.

Jim Gilliam

Throughout most of the 1950s into the mid-1960s, the Dodgers had a similar player, Jim Gilliam. “Junior” spent a short amount of time in the Negro Leagues before the Dodgers picked him up. His debut was 1953, when he won the National League Rookie of the Year. He was a switch hitter who could play anywhere. Over his career he hit .265, had about two and a half walks for every strikeout, scored over 1100 runs, and generally had an OPS+ in the 80s or 90s. Again, like McDougald, what he could do best was plug a hole. Over his career he played 1046 games at second, 761 at third, 203 in left field, 222 games in the outfield in which he switched positions during the game, and a smattering of games in right field, center field, and first base (never at shortstop). He came up to replace an aging Jackie Robinson at second and by 1955 was also spending a lot of time in left field. In 1958 (with the arrival of Charlie Neal) he was more or less the fulltime left fielder, although he put in 44 games at third. In 1959 and 1960 he was the regular third baseman. In 1961, ’62, and ’63 he was sliding between second and third. In 1964 and 1965 he was more or less the primary third baseman. His final year was 1966 and he spent most of his time at third.

Both McDougald and Gilliam were valuable assets to their teams, while falling below the level of stars. Both had difficult jobs having to fill in whatever position the team needed that year (or occasionally that week) and both did their job well. I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say that without these two men, the Stengel Yankees and the “Boys of Summer” would have been less successful.

The 50 Greatest Red Sox

April 20, 2012

The Birthday Boy

In honor of the 100th anniversary of Fenway Park, ESPN Boston just released its list of the 50 Greatest Red Sox. It’s an interesting list and frankly not a bad one, although I would disagree with some of the selections. Here’s a list of their top 10 in order: Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, Tris Speaker, Pedro Martinez, Cy Young, Roger Clemens, Jimmie Foxx, Babe Ruth, Lefty Grove, and Bobby Doerr. Before you ask, Jim Rice is 11th.

Again, not a bad list but I wonder how much Clemens rancorous departure and the subsequent steroid controversy contributed to his rank below both Martinez and Young. I’m a little surprised Grove is a top 10 over Wade Boggs or Rice, but why not. You got to admit, that’s one heck of an outfield, isn’t it?

In case you’re interested it takes all the way to 30th to get a full team. According to this listing, the best Red Sox team is:

Infield: Foxx, Doerr, Joe Cronin (18th), and Wade Boggs (13th)

Outfield: Williams, Yastrzemski, Speaker

Catcher: Carlton Fisk (14th)

DH: Rice (11th and the first position player who would not have a regular spot in the field, hence he’s the DH)

Left Handed Starters: Ruth and Grove

Right Handed Starters: Martinez, Young, and Clemens

Closer: Dick Radatz (30th)

Agree? Disagree? Fine, but compliment or complain to ESPN: Boston, it’s their list.

A Dozen Things You Should Know About Jimmy Collins

April 19, 2012

Jimmy Collins

1. James J. Collins was born in 1870 in Clifton, New York (now Niagara Falls, New York) where he father was a cop. Eventually the father became chief of police for Buffalo, New York.

2. He began his career with the International League (minor league) Buffalo team in 1893. Although he started out as a third baseman, he spent most of his minor league career in the outfield.

3. In 1895 he was sold to the Boston Beaneaters (now the Braves) as an outfielder. He wasn’t very good and was loaned (they don’t do it that way anymore) to the Louisville Colonels for the bulk of the season.

4. According to the story Louisville was playing the Baltimore Orioles (not the current team) when the third baseman was having a difficult time fielding bunts, an Orioles specialty. Knowing Collins had played some third in the minors, the manager shifted him to third where he threw out four consecutive bunters. That got him a more or less permanent change to third (he played a handful of games at shortstop).

5. According to the same story Collins is supposed to have invented the third baseman charging the ball on a bunt, fielding it bare-handed, and flipping it underhand to first for the out. Maybe. But considering that gloves were relatively new, fielding a bunt bare-handed was certainly not original with Collins. Possibly he’s the first to throw the ball without standing up first.

6. He went back to Boston in 1896 settling in as the team’s primary third baseman. He generally hit around .300 and led the National League in both home runs and total bases in 1898.

7. In 1901, he jumped to the newly formed Boston Americans (now the Red Sox) of the fledgling American League, staying there into the 1907 season.

8. He became Boston’s first manager, holding the job into the 1906 season. As manager, he won pennants in 1903 and 1904.

9. The 1903 team played, and won, the first World Series (the 1800s postseason games were not called “World Series”). Collins hit .250 in the Series, scored five runs, had one RBI, and became the first manager to win a Series. In 1904 there was no World Series.

10. In 1907 he was traded to the Philadelphia Athletics, where he played through 1908, then left the Major Leagues.

11. He retired to Buffalo, made money in real estate, and worked for the city parks department.

12. He died in 1943 and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1945. At the time of his death, he was universally recognized as one of the two or three finest third basemen in Major League history.


April 17, 2012

Johnny Vander Meer about 1940

Baseball is full of obscure records and feats. Some of those records and feats are accomplished by the greats of the game, others by players who had one moment in the sun. Johnny Vander Meer is one of the latter.

Vander Meer was a left-handed starter for Cincinnati in the 1930s and 1940s. He was known as one of those scatter-armed lefties who could throw the ball through a brick wall, but you needed to make it a pretty big brick wall because it was anybody’s guess where the ball would impact the wall. His rookie year was 1937. He went 3-5 with an ERA of 3.84 in 19 games (10 starts). He struck out 52 in 84 innings, but walked 69. By June 1938 he was trudging along on the way to a 15-10 record with 103 walks and 125 strikeouts. On Sunday, 11 June, with a record of 5-2, he got the start in an afternoon home game. By the end of the game, he’d thrown an absolute jewel.

He faced the Boston Bees (now the Braves) and he shut them out. In fact, he no-hit them. He faced 28 total batters, walked three (including Woody English), stuck out four (including Vince DiMaggio) and used a couple of double plays to get out of two of the walk situations. All in all it was a great performance. It was the first no-no of the season and only the sixth of the decade of the 1930s. There were to be only two more for the remainder of the decade.

One of those came four nights later in Brooklyn. Vander Meer. now 6-2, again took the mound for the Reds. This time he shutdown the Dodgers in the first night game in Ebbets Field history. He wasn’t quite as good that night. This time he walked eight and struck out seven. Hall of Fame outfielder Kiki Cuyler got two of the walks and first baseman Dolf Camilli was issued three. But the Reds lit up four Dodgers pitchers for six runs (including a three run home run by first baseman Frank McCormick).

Vander Meer became an instant celebrity. No one had even thrown consecutive no-hitters. No one has done it since. It remains a unique moment in baseball lore. He won his next game (also against Boston) 14-1, giving up four hits, walking seven and striking out two. He managed to reach 10-2 before taking his next loss against Chicago on 10 July (he lost 3-1). As mentioned above, he finished 10-5, and made the All Star Game for the first time. He started, got the win, gave up one hit and struck out one. At the end of the season, Cincinnati finished fourth. They would make the World Series in 1939, win it in 1940, then slip back into the pack.

Vander Meer didn’t do much in either 1939 or 1940. He had good years in 1941, ’42, and ’43, winning three straight strikeout titles (and leading the National League in walks in ’43). He went off to war in 1944 and 1945, came back to Cincy, had one more decent year in 1948, then was out of the Major Leagues after a one game stint with Cleveland in 1951. He played minor league ball for a while, including throwing a no-hitter in 1952, then retired.

His record was 119-121 with an ERA of 3.44 (ERA+ of 107), 1132 walks, and 1294 strikeouts. So he was never a great pitcher. Well, except for those two nights in June 1938, when he was arguably the greatest ever.

1912: Opening Day

April 11, 2012

Mae West in 1912

Today marks the 100th Anniversary of Opening Day in 1912. It was a different world then. William Howard Taft was President of the United States (although Woodrow Wilson would win the election in November). Most people still rode the train or horse and buggy. Wyatt Earp and Cole Younger were still alive, as was the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria whose death two years later would spark a World War. Al Capone, Frank Nitti, and Elliot Ness were nobodies. Irving Berlin and Scott Joplin were writing ragtime music and Geroge Gershwin was still four years from publishing his first song. No one had ever heard of John Wayne and Mae West was just getting started on Broadway, but Mary Pickford was America’s darling and Lillian Gish was just beginning a career that would make her a great star. She’d hitched her ambitions to a genius named D.W. Griffith who was starting to toy with the idea of making a movie two hours long, an unheard of length for a “flicker”. Molly Brown wasn’t yet “unsinkable” because the Titanic was still three days from be introduced to icebergs.  George Gipp (of “win one for the Gipper” fame) had yet to play a down for Notre Dame and Babe Ruth had not yet appeared in a Red Sox uniform.

For Boston, 1912 would be an exceptionally good year. Down 2-1 in the ninth inning, the Red Sox would storm back to win on Opening Day. By the end of the season they would win 105 games, finish first by 14 (over Walter Johnson and the Senators), then win a famous World Series over the Giants four games to three (with a tie). The outfield of Duffy Lewis, Tris Speaker, and Harry Hooper is considered one of the finest, if not the finest, Deadball Era outfield. Both Speaker and Hooper eventually made the Hall of Fame. Although Hooper had a down year in 1912, Speaker was tremendous and Lewis had a fine season. Jake Stahl managed and played first. He joined Speaker and third baseman Larry Gardner as .300 hitters. Steve Yerkes and Heinie Wagner rounded out the infield and Bill Carrigan did the bulk of the catching. Joe Wood hit .290 and won 34 games. Hugh Bedient and Buck O’Brien both won twenty and Charley Hall and Ray Collins (not the old actor) won in double figures.

The National League saw the New York Giants score 18 runs and pound out 22 hits as the started the season with a victory over Brooklyn. John McGraw’s team would win 103 games and finish 10 ahead of Pittsburgh. As with most McGraw teams, it was the pitching that stood out. Christy Mathewson won 23 games and walked only 34 in 310 innings of work. Lefty Rube Marquard won even more games with 26, while Jeff Tesreau, Red Ames, and Doc Crandall won between 11 and 17 games. Tesreau managed to cop the ERA title. In the field, catcher Chief Meyers had a terrific year, hitting over 350, winning an OBP title, and slugging almost .450. The infield of Fred Merkle, Larry Doyle, Art Fletcher, and Buck Herzog (first around to third )feathured two .300 hitters and two men with 10 or more homer runs (Merkle and Doyle in each case). The outfield featured Fred Snodgrass, who would make a memorable gaffe in the World Series, Josh Devore, Beals Becker, and Red Murray. None of them hit .300, but Murray slugged over .400.

Other noteworthy achievements of the season in the NL included Heinie Zimmerman winning the NL batting, slugging, home run, and OPS titles. Honus Wagner picked up the RBI title while Cincinnati leftfielder Bob Bescher swipped 67 bases to win the stolen base crown. Larry Cheney tied Marquard for the league lead in wins while Grover Cleveland Alexander picked up the strikeout title with 195. Nap Rucker of Brooklyn and Marty O’Toole at Pittsburgh each had six shutouts. The league lead in saves was six, turned in by Slim Sallee of the Cardinals. The Chalmers Award (the 1912 version of the MVP) went to Larry Doyle over Meyers (got me). 

In the American League Ty Cobb hit .409 to win the batting title. He also picked up slugging and OPS titles, while Speaker won the OBP title. Frank Baker won the home run title and tied with Speaker for the RBI lead. Clyde Milan of Washington won the stolen base crown with 88 steals. Walter Johnson won both the ERA and strikeout titles at the same time he put up 33 wins, one less than Wood. Wood also had 10 shutouts, while Ed Walsh at Chicago picked up 10 saves. It should not surprise you that Speaker picked up the AL’s Chalmers Award.

Run Like the Wind

April 9, 2012

Ty Cobb sliding into third. The lack of fans in the stands may indicate this picture is staged

When I think of the Deadball Era in baseball I generally think of three things: pitching, low scores, and base running. Our image of the era is of low scoring games with lots of stolen bases, gap power, and great pitching. As a rule that’s true, but there is another element that needs to be considered. The baserunners weren’t very good.

Here’s a set of numbers for you: 185/182, 258/168, 276/157, 273/151, 194/131, 213/193, 247/184, 176/174. Those are the stolen base numbers for each American League team one hundred years ago (1912). The first number is the number of successful steal, the second number is the number of caught stealing. Percentages are as follows (teams in the same order): 50.4, 60.1, 63.7, 64.4, 59.7, 52.5, 57.3, 50.3. Not real good, are they? Now the kicker. These aren’t in order of finish in the league, but are in hitting order. Boston finished first and is listed first (50.4% success rate), but Washington, which finished second is listed fourth (64.4%). Detroit,which finished sixth is listed third  (63.7%). So there’s not much correlation between stealing bases at a successful rate and winning a pennant. Boston finished next to last (the 50.3% belongs to St. Louis which finished seventh) while Detroit finished second in success rate, but ended the season deep in the second division.

Selected players? Well, here’s a handful of well-known names. Tris Speaker stole 52, but was caught 28 times (a 65% success rate). Ty Cobb stole 61 and was caught 34 times (a 64% success rate). Sam Crawford was 42 and 13 for a success rate of 76%. Eddie Collins is 63 and 22 for a 74% rate. And Clyde Milan, who led the AL in stolen bases was 88 and 31 for a success rate of 74%. Milan, Collins, Cobb, and Speaker were the top four in the AL in stolen bases for 1912. And before anyone asks, the caught stealing stats are incomplete for the National League in 1912.

How’s this stack up against more modern players? using only three, Rickey Henderson had a 80.1% success rate, Luis Aparicio a 78.4% success rate, and Tim Raines as 84.7% success rate for their careers. All are better than the 1912 guys, but Crawford is close with the 76%.

For the entire AL in the entire season the numbers are 1822 stolen bases and 1340 caught stealing for a 52.6% success rate. Ninety years late (2002) the numbers are 1236 and 579 for a 68% success rate. True the total numbers are down but we are in a power era when stolen base totals tend to decrease. As a check, I looked at 1911 and 1913. The stats were incomplete but what stats there were indicated that 1912 wasn’t out of line for the era. I acknowledge that this is only a three-year look at incomplete stats and that a more in-depth study might yield different results.

What do I make of all this? A couple of things jump out at me. First, the guys who steal a lot of bases aren’t that much worse than their modern counterparts, but are below the newer guys when it comes to success. Second, the guys who aren’t great base stealers in 1912 are really, really awful. Take, for instance, the pennant winning Red Sox. Four of their primary starters actually had more caught stealing than successful stolen bases and one guy was at 21/20. A lot of other teams have similar numbers. Also, and this is a bit of a stretch, but you have to conclude that Deadball Era catchers had much better arms than we’ve been led to believe or a lot of pitchers had really first-rate pick-off moves. Further study could indicate how correct these conclusions are for the entire era.

Opening Day’s Best Performance

April 5, 2012

Bob Feller

Great bit of baseball trivia for you. In 1940 the Chicago White Sox played a game and lost. At the end of the game every White Sox player had exactly the same batting average as he had when the game started. How’s this possible? OK, take a second and figure it out. Now, the answer. On Opening Day 16 April 1940, Bob Feller of the Cleveland Indians threw a no-hitter against Chicago. When the game began every White Sox player had a batting average of .000. At the end of the game every White Sox player still had a batting average of .000. Feller’s 1940 Opening Day gets my vote as the finest Opening Day performance ever.

By 1940, Feller was no longer the fresh-faced kid from Iowa. He’d played for four years, had won two strikeout (and two walk) titles, finished as high as third in the MVP voting, and led the American League with 24 wins in 1939. The White Sox were, however, in the midst of a long slide, but by 1940 were beginning to show improvement. In 1939 they’d finished in the first division (4th), so Opening Day at home in 1940 held the promise of continued improvement.

Facing Feller was left-hander Eddie Smith. Smith had come to Chicago from the A’s in 1939 and gone 9-11 with an ERA in the mid-threes, had given up more walks than strikeouts, but had more innings pitched than hits allowed. I have no idea why he started game one over Ted Lyons or Johnny Rigney (1939’s aces).

Smith gave up one run in the fourth inning when Cleveland strung together singles to score left fielder Jeff Heath for the sole run of the game. In eight innings he gave up six hits, walked two, and struck out five. Reliever Clint Brown pitched a perfect ninth. Feller, of course, was even better. He pitched a fairly typical Feller game (except for not giving up a hit). He struck out eight and walked five (one man reached on an error for six total baserunners).

Smith went on to a 14-9 season and the ChiSox finished fourth again. Feller led the AL in wins with 27. He also led the league in shutouts (4), strikeouts (261), ERA (2.61), and innings pitched. His WHIP was 1.133 and 1940 became his only pitching triple crown (it was his only ERA title). He went on to 266 wins and the Hall of Fame. Smith finished his career 73-113.

There have been a lot of great Opening Day performances. A lot of guys have hit big home runs, or pitched shutouts. For my money, Feller tops them all.

The Internationale

April 2, 2012

Was this man a baseball fan?

Baseball fans of the world unite (“Arise you workers from your slumbers”) it’s time to stand up for something we desire (“Arise you prisoners of want”). And if this simple plea is ignored (“For reason in revolt now slumbers”) then fandom is going to have to take action (“And at last ends the age of cant”). It’s time to quit allowing the Super Bowl to be a defacto national holiday (“Away with all your superstitions”), stand up for baseball (“Servile masses arise, arise”), and demand Opening Day be made a national holiday (“We’ll change henceforth the old traditions”). We need to do this now (“And spurn the dust to win the prize”).

So let us write our congressmen (“So, comrades, come rally”), write the commissioner (“And the last fight let us face.”). No more Opening Day in Japan, but Opening Day for all fans (“The Internationale unites the human race”). Appeal to the President (“So, comrades, come rally”), don’t be discouraged if he’s off at a basketball game (“And the last fight let us face”). Baseball fans of the world, we can do this (“The Internationale unites the human race”).

Translation of “The Internationale” from There are a dozen or so versions at You Tube if you want to hear it played and sung. Have a happy Opening Day, comrades.